Jean Barker

Flight risks

2015-09-28 12:30

Jean Barker


I get in my car, which is packed to the roof with stuff that’s going to my storage locker deep in gangland. The last drop off. I am nearly, nearly there. After this, a final pack, and then the airport and 48 hours later I’ll be at my mom’s. I love LA but after moving house and bouncing around from place to place for three weeks, I’m ready to get the hell out.

It’s got to the point where I’m fraying at the edges, and my vulnerability is obvious to anyone who sees me. I know this is the case whenever strange men continually hit on me. It’s like they can smell prey. Usually, I’m fearless. Today, I’m avoiding dark alleyways until my defences are stronger.

I’m also feeling pretty sorry for myself, having just said goodbye to my boyfriend of over a year. In fact, I’m literally in tears. Surely, this is the low point of my life, I sob to myself, driving through a busy intersection. But as the thought occurs, my clutch gives out, and the car rolls to a dead stop.  

An hour later, I sell the car to the tow truck driver for a 10th of its value, when I realise that paying him is expensive, fixing the clutch is going to take more than the day I have left, and my car is probably no longer worth storing for six months.

I tell a friend“It can’t get worse than this. I mean… seriously.” He agrees.

Seriously? It can.

Exhausted, I arrive at LAX international airport the next day. I am ready for 36 hours of sleep. I just want to fly. But, at the British Airways check in, Victoria looks up from my South African passport. She shakes her head: “I can’t let you on the plane,” she says. “If you land the UK, you’ll be arrested and deported. You don’t have a transit visa or a visa in your passport for the USA.”

I don’t know when South Africans started needing to apply for visas to change planes in the UK. The excuse given is that terror threats are increasing, so they have to track each person. But this means they track South Africans, Indians, and so on. Not Aussies and Americans. Wanna guess why?

What exactly is being part of the Commonwealth doing for us anymore? Where’s the wealth we have in common? Third world members are third class citizens of the world.

And here’s the kicker: I can’t reroute, because British Airways doesn’t fly via anywhere I’m allowed to transit. I can only get my US visa stamp in SA. So I can basically toss this ticket, because waiting a month for a visa just isn’t viable at this point in time.

And anyhow, the website where you pay for them is – get this – closed when I go online to try. It’s so complicated that travel agents don’t even understand it, according to my travel agent. Yes, he’s very sorry, but I don’t get a refund, and British Airways oversold the flight anyhow, so they don’t give a shit.

Standing at LAX airport, with no car, no home and… realising this, I just burst into tears, probably for the 10th time in the last week.

The upside

The reason I’m still alive and relatively sane is that during this insane week, amazing, generous people have come to my aid at every turn. I didn’t tell you about this at the time, but looking back, I remember the good things that prevented me slipping completely into insanity. Some of those good things come from friends, while at other times, total strangers show me mercy.

When the car breaks down, it’s not the person I call for help who saves me, but two passing men in the street, who push me to the side of the road, braving honking drivers and the heat to make sure I’m safe.

The tow truck driver who buys my car is kind enough to spend an hour helping me get my stuff into storage and stay with me without being asked, to ensure I’m not robbed while waiting for an Uber in a sketchy neighbourhood.

At the airport, a British woman delays her check-in to comfort me and apologise for her government’s ridiculous treatment of travelers and gives me a long hug.

The airport shuttle driver goes 20 minutes out of his way to drop me at a friend’s on the way from the airport back to LA.

And then, there’s the friends, from South Africa to Los Angeles, who rally to offer me places to sleep, work, a ride here and there, and words of comfort and re-welcome, as I try to set my life back up again here, in the USA. The kindness shown to me has been humbling.

And at some point, you can’t fight the decisions life makes for you. It all feels like a dream, and a nightmare, or both, but it’s real, alright. Apparently, I wasn’t supposed to leave California.

So I guess hugging my mom and dad and seeing my friends’ new babies will have to wait until UK is willing to let their African commonwealth “partners” from brown-skinned countries walk across Heathrow airport without being arrested, or until work brings me back home via Turkey or the UAE. There’s nothing I’d love more than to direct my first film in South Africa, one day.

Jean earned an MFA in Directing and Screenwriting and works in the LA film industry. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here.

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